BEIRUT: A recent uptick in misleading news reports related to the Syrian refugee crisis is the result of propaganda campaigns, Lebanon’s minister of state for refugee affairs has said, while experts suggest a possible link to the upcoming parliamentary elections. “I don’t know why they are doing this, but we feel that someone is planting these statements,” Minister Mouin Merehbi told The Daily Star.
“In addition to a rise in false information lately, there have been racist WhatsApp messages circulating about Syrian refugees.”
Merehbi noted that false information was appearing in the media more frequently than usual.
In the last week, Lebanese media outlets published a widely circulated article claiming that 300,000 refugees were pregnant. The number was unequivocally refuted by international organizations, who said it was a vast overstatement. “The number is exaggerated and really strange,” Mounia Amrani, medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Beirut told The Daily Star at the time. “We can expect an estimated number of about 80,000 [pregnant women], maximum.”
Merehbi, too, noted the incredible nature of the reports.
“I don’t know how anybody would believe what they’re saying. How can 3 percent growth in population be true?” he said.
Another Lebanese news report claimed that a “high proportion” of crimes in Lebanon were committed by Syrians, but did not provide any figures for crimes committed by Syrian or Lebanese nationals. The report added that the Lebanese news was “devoid” of reports regarding crimes committed by Syrians.
While Merehbi did not name who might be behind the recent spread of “propaganda,” he noted that the growth of such fake news was likely not a coincidence.
In a separate conversation, Jad Melki, chairperson of the Department of Communication Arts at the Lebanese American University, told The Daily Star that recent biased reporting about the Syrian crisis in Lebanon could doubtless be attributed to politicians gearing up for potential parliamentary elections.
Over 1 million Syrian refugees are currently registered with the U.N. refugee agency in Lebanon, but the government has estimated figures closer to 1.5 million. Large populations of refugees settling in remote and vulnerable areas of the country have sparked anxiety in equally underprivileged host communities.
Growing tensions have served as fodder for politicians seeking to appeal to certain constituencies, Melki said. “False reporting can absolutely be tied to upcoming elections,” he said. “[Elections] are financial seasons for media institutions because they get huge flocks of money coming from both inside and outside of Lebanon.”
Melki added that reporting the Syrian crisis in the Lebanese media was a particularly “thorny” issue for political parties. “The majority of Lebanese media [organizations] are distributed and divided among sects and political groups, so they work for the corresponding agenda. The refugee issue creates some controversy for some political parties who may be politically aligned with the regime, but have supporters who carry racism toward refugees, based on sectarianism and the Syrian presence in Lebanon during and after the Civil War.”
Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, confirmed to The Daily Star that inaccurate reports in the media about the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon were nothing new.
Sleiman said the largest misconceptions circulated were related to the economic impact of the refugee crisis on Lebanon. “Syrian refugees displacing Lebanese workers is a commonly stated notion that has little basis in fact,” she told The Daily Star.
The U.N. agency has also seen inaccurate reporting of its services, such as on the amount provided to refugees in its cash card program. While UNHCR has corrected media outlets that attribute false or inaccurate statistics to the agency, Sleiman said its strategy in combating fake news is to “consistently formulate evidence-based advocacy points” and “generate knowledge about the vulnerability of Syrian refugees.”
Although false reporting on this issue may now be on the rise, Melki noted that, broadly speaking, the freedom and neutrality of the Lebanese press have long been topics of concern and discussion.
To address media ethics and literacy, Melki helped facilitate the first conference for the newly established Association of Media Educators in Lebanon. The conference is set to take place at LAU at the end of September, with the sponsorship of the Information Ministry.
“Even though there are issues in Lebanese media, [the media] is relatively free. We need to battle these problems [and] we need the initiative to grow locally. It cannot come from foreign-hosted workshops that come and leave,” Melki said.